Using PowerShell to set Windows environment variables, read environment variables and create new environment variables is easy once you know the trick. The tricks you learn in this article will work for Windows 10 environment variables as well as any Windows client/server after Windows 7 SP1/Windows Server 2008.

PowerShell provides many different ways to interact with Windows environment variables from the $env: PSDrive. the registry, and the [System.Environment] .NET class. You'll learn about each method including understand environment variable scope in this step-by-step walkthrough.

Assumptions

Throughout this article, I'll be using Windows PowerShell 5.1 on Windows 10. But if you have any version of Windows PowerShell later than v3 on Windows 7 SP1 or later, the techniques I'm about to show you should work just fine.

What are Environment Variables?

Environment variables, as the name suggests, store information about the environment that is used by Windows and applications. Environment variables can be accessed by graphical applications such as Windows Explorer and plain text editors like Notepad, as well as the cmd.exe and PowerShell.

Using environment variables helps you to avoid hard-coding file paths, user or computer names and much more in your PowerShell scripts or modules.

Common Environment Variables

As you begin to learn more about how to work with environment variables in PowerShell, you'll come across many different variables. Some are more useful than others. Below is a list of some of the common environment variables and their usage for reference.

Variable Usage
ClientName The name of the remote computer connected via a Remote Desktop session.
SessionName This helps to identify if the current Windows session is regarded by the operating system as running at the console. For console sessions SessionName will be 'Console'. Enhanced Session connections to Hyper-V Virtual Machines do not report SessionName as 'Console', whereas Standard Sessions do.
ComputerName The name of the computer.
SystemRoot and Windir The path to the current Windows installation.
ProgramFiles and ProgramFiles(x86) The default locations for x64 and x86 programs.
ProgramW6432 The default location for programs, avoiding 32/64 bit redirection. This variable only applies for 32 bit processes running on a 64 bit platform. This means that you can use it to identify when a 32 bit instance of PowerShell is running on a 64 bit system.
UserDNSDomain The Fully Qualified Domain Name of the Active Directory domain that the current user logged on to. Only present for domain logons.
UserDomain The NETBIOS-style name of the domain that the current user logged on to. Can be a computer name if there's no domain.
UserDomainRoamingProfile The location of the central copy of the roaming profile for the user, if any. Only present for domain logons.
UserName The name of the currently logged on user.
UserProfile The location of the profile of the current user on the local computer.

Environment Variable Scopes

There are three scopes of environment variables. Think of scopes as layers of variables that build up to give a total picture. Combined, these "layers" provide many different environment variables to any running process in Windows.

Environment Variable Scope "Hierarchy"

Each of these "layers" either combine or overwrite one another. They are defined in a hierarchy like: machine --> user --> process with each scoped variable overwriting the parent variable if one exists in the parent scope.

For example, a common environment variable is TEMP. This variable stores the folder path to Windows' local temporary folder. This environment variable is set to:

  • C:\WINDOWS\TEMP in the machine scope
  • C:\Users\<username>\AppData\Local\Temp in the user scope
  • C:\Users\<username>\AppData\Local\Temp in the process scope.

If there’s no TEMP environment variable set in the user scope then the end result will be C:\WINDOWS\TEMP.

Environment Variable Scope Types

There are three different environment variable scopes in Windows.

Machine

Environment variables in the machine scope are associated with the running instance of Windows. Any user account can read these, but setting, changing or deleting them needs to done with elevated privileges.

User

Environment variables in the user scope are associated with the user running the current process. User variables overwrite machine-scoped variables having the same name.

Note: Microsoft recommends that Machine and User scoped environment variable values contain no more than 2048 characters.

Process

Environment variables in the process scope are a combination of the machine and user scopes, along with some variables that Windows creates dynamically.

Below is a list of environment variables available to a running process. All of these variables are dynamically created.

  • ALLUSERSPROFILE
  • APPDATA
  • COMPUTERNAME
  • HOMEDRIVE
  • HOMEPATH
  • LOCALAPPDATA
  • LOGONSERVER
  • PROMPT
  • PUBLIC
  • SESSION
  • SystemDrive
  • SystemRoot
  • USERDNSDOMAIN
  • USERDOMAIN
  • USERDOMAIN_ROAMINGPROFILE
  • USERNAME
  • USERPROFILE

Environment Variables in the Registry

Environment variables are stored in two registry locations, one for the user scope and one for the machine scope.

Don't Use the Registry to Manage Environment Variables

There's a catch when making changes to variables inside of the registry. Any running processes will not see variable changes in the registry. Processes only see the registry variables and values that were present when the process was started, unless Windows notifies them that there has been a change.

Instead of modifying the registry directly, you can use a .NET class instead. The .NET [System.Environment] class can modify machine and user-scoped environment variables and handle the registry housekeeping for you.

Modifying environment variables in the registry directly, whilst possible, doesn't make sense. The .NET class offers a simpler, Microsoft-supported approach. You'll learn about using the [System.Environment] .NET class later in this article.

Environment Variable Registry Locations and Querying

I hope you've been convinced to not modify the registry directly but if you'd like to take a peek at what's in there, you can find all user environment variables in the HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Environment key. Machine-scoped environment variables are stored at HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Session Manager\Environment.

Inside of either of these keys lies registry values of type REG_SZ or REG_EXPAND_SZ. REG_EXPAND_SZ values hold environment variables embedded as part of their value. These environment variables are expanded when the value is retrieved.

To demonstrate this, use the REG utility. This is a small command-line utility included with Windows.

Query the TEMP environment variable as seen below. Run REG with the QUERY parameter to retrieve the value of the TEMP variable.

> REG QUERY HKCU\Environment /V TEMP

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Environment     
    TEMP    REG_EXPAND_SZ    %USERPROFILE%\AppData\Local\Temp
You'll sometimes notice environment variables displayed surrounded by percentage symbols (%COMPUTERNAME%) like above. This is the old-school way of showing environment variables via cmd.exe and batch files. Know that PowerShell does not recognize this format.

The REG utility allows us to see the native value of the registry value. The value type is REG_EXPAND_SZ and the value contains the %USERPROFILE% environment variable.

If you'd rather use PowerShell to retrieve the registry value, you can so using the Get-Item cmdlet as shown below.

PS51> Get-ItemProperty -Path HKCU:\Environment -Name TEMP

TEMP         : C:\Users\<your username>\AppData\Local\Temp
PSPath       : Microsoft.PowerShell.Core\Registry::HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Environment
PSParentPath : Microsoft.PowerShell.Core\Registry::HKEY_CURRENT_USER
PSChildName  : Environment
PSDrive      : HKCU
PSProvider   : Microsoft.PowerShell.Core\Registry

View and Set Windows Environment Variables via the GUI

To see a GUI view of the user and system environment variables, run SystemPropertiesAdvanced.exe from PowerShell, a command prompt or from Windows Key+R to display the System Properties Advanced tab. Click on the EnvironmentVariables button, which is highlighted in the image below.

The System Properties dialog, Advanced tab

The Environment Variables dialog, shown below, allows you to view, create and modify user and machine-scoped environment variables. Note that the dialog refers to machine scoped variables as System variables.

The Environment Variables dialog

Now that you have an understanding of environment variables, let's get to what you're here for, managing them with PowerShell!

There are a few different ways you can interact with environment variables using PowerShell.

  • The Env: PSDrive and Provider - session-based. Only sets the values of environment variables for the current PowerShell session
  • $env: variables - session-based. Only sets the values of environment variables for the current PowerShell session
  • The [System.Environment] .NET Class - allows you to persist user and system-scoped environment variables across sessions and reboots

The Env: PSDrive and Provider

One of the best way to read environment variables is a PowerShell concept known as PowerShell drives (PS drives). A PS drive allows you to treat environment variables as if they are a file system through the Env: drive.

Switching to the Env: Drive

Like all PS drives, you reference it via paths like Env:\TEMP, Env:\COMPUTERNAME, etc. But to save some keystrokes, switch to the Env: drive just as you would any file system drive, as shown below.

PS51> cd Env:
PS51 Env:\>

## or

PS51> Set-Location Env:
PS Env:\>

Tab-Completion with the Env: Drive

You can use the same commands you would use to access a file system, such as Get-Item and Get-ChildItem to access environment variables. But instead of the file system, you're reading the Env: drive.

Because environment variables are stored in a PS drive, you can use the tab completion feature of PowerShell to cycle through the available variables, as shown below.

Env: tab completion - finding environment variables starting with the letter C

Let's now jump into a couple examples of how you can use the Env: PS drive to work with environment variables.

Listing Environment Variables with Env:

PS51> Get-Item -Path Env:
PS51> Get-Item -Path Env:USERNAME
Find all available environment variables or a single one

Listing Environment Variables Using a Wildcard with Env:

PS51> Get-Item -Path Env:user*
Find all environment variables matching user* 

Finding Environment Variable Values with Env:

The results of these commands are key/value [System.Collections.DictionaryEntry] .NET objects. These objects hold the environment variable’s name in the Name property and the value in the Value property.

You can access a specific value of an environment variable by wrapping the Get-Item command reference in parentheses and referencing the Value property as shown below:

PS51> (Get-Item -Path Env:computername).Value
MYCOMPUTERHOSTNAME

In situations where you need to only return certain environment variables, use standard PowerShell cmdlets such as Select-Object and Where-Object to select and filter the objects returned by the Env: provider.

In the example below, only the environment variable COMPUTERNAME is returned.

PS51> Get-ChildItem -Path Env: | Where-Object -Property Name -eq 'COMPUTERNAME'

As an alternative method, use the Get-Content cmdlet. This cmdlet returns a [String] object containing the value of the environment variable. This object is simpler to deal with as it returns only the value, rather than an object with Name and Value properties.

PS51> Get-Content -Path Env:\COMPUTERNAME

Demo: Inserting Environment Values in a String

Using Get-Content, you can find the value of an environment variable and insert the COMPUTERNAME environment variable, for example, into a text string.

PS51> 'Computer Name is: {0}' -f (Get-Content -Path Env:COMPUTERNAME)
Computer Name is: MYCOMPUTER

Setting an Environment Variable (And Creating) with Env:

Create new environment variables with PowerShell using the New-Item cmdlet. Provide the name of the environment variable in the form Env:\<EnvVarName> for the Name value and the value of the environment variable for the Value parameter as shown below.

PS51> New-Item -Path Env:\MYCOMPUTER -Value MY-WIN10-PC
Name                           Value
----                           -----
MYCOMPUTER                     MY-WIN10-PC

Use the Set-item cmdlet to set an environment variable, or create a new one if it doesn't already exist. You can see below using the Set-Item cmdlet, you can both create or modify and environment variable.

PS51> Set-Item -Path Env:testvariable -Value "Alpha"

Copying an Environment Variable with Env:

Sometimes the situation arises that you need to replicate the value of an environment variable. You can do this using the Copy-Item cmdlet.

Below you can see that the value of the COMPUTERNAME variable is copied to MYCOMPUTER, overwriting its existing value.

PS51> Get-Item -Path Env:\MYCOMPUTER

Name                           Value
----                           -----
MYCOMPUTER                     MY-WIN10-PC

PS51> Copy-Item -Path Env:\COMPUTERNAME -Destination Env:\MYCOMPUTER
PS51> Get-Item -Path Env:\MYCOMPUTER

Name                           Value
----                           -----
MYCOMPUTER                     WIN10-1903

Removing an Environment Variable with Env:

Situations will arise where an environment variable is no longer needed. You can remove environment variables using one of three methods:

  • Use the Set-Item cmdlet to set an environment variable to an empty value
    PS51> Set-Item -Path Env:\MYCOMPUTER -Value ''
  • Use the Remove-Item cmdlet.
    PS51> Remove-Item -Path Env:\MYCOMPUTER
  • Use the Clear-Item cmdlet.
    PS51> Clear-Item -Path Env:\MYCOMPUTER

Renaming an Environment Variable with Env:

In situations where the name of an environment variable needs to be changed, you have the option to rename, rather than delete and recreate with the Env: provider.

Use the Rename-Item cmdlet to change the name of an environment variable whilst keeping its value. Below you can see that you can see that the MYCOMPUTER variable is renamed to OLDCOMPUTER whilst retaining its value.

PS51> Rename-Item -Path Env:\MYCOMPUTER -NewName OLDCOMPUTER
PS51> Get-Item -Path OLDCOMPUTER
Name                           Value
----                           -----
OLDCOMPUTER                    WIN10-1903

$Env: Variables

Having mastered the Env: drive to treat environment variables as files, this section shows you how to treat them as variables. Another way you can manage in-session environment variables is using the the PowerShell Expression Parser. This feature allows you to use the $Env: scope to access environment variables.

Getting an Environment Variable with $Env:

Using the $Env scope, you can reference environment variables directly without using a command like Get-Item as shown below.

PS51> $env:computername

This method makes it easy to insert environment variables into strings like below:

PS51> "The Computer Name is {0}" -f $env:computername
The Computer Name is WIN10-1809
PS51> "The Computer Name is $env:computername"
The Computer Name is WIN10-1809

Setting or Creating an Environment Variable with $Env:

Setting an environment variable using this method is straightforward. This will also create a new environment variable if one does not already exist like below.

PS51> $env:testvariable = "Alpha"

Use the += syntax to add to an existing value, rather than overwriting it.

PS51> $env:testvariable = "Alpha"
PS51> $env:testvariable += ",Beta"

PS51> $env:testvariable
Alpha,Beta

Removing an Environment Variable with $Env:

To remove an environment variable using this method, simple set its value to an empty string.

PS51> $env:testvariable = ''

Using the [System.Environment] .NET Class

The .NET class [System.Environment] offers methods for getting and setting environment variables also. This is only method to access various environment scopes directly and set environment variables that survive across PowerShell sessions.

In all of the following examples, if no scope is provided, the process scope is assumed.

When using the [System.Environment], you'll use a few different .NET static class methods. You don't need to understand what a static method is. You only need to understand to use any of the techniques you're about to learn, you'll need to first reference the class ([System.Environment]) followed by two colons (::) then followed by the method.

Listing Environment Variables with [System.Environment]

If you'd like to see all environment variables in a particular scope, you'd use the GetEnvironmentVariables method. This method returns all environment variables by the scope specified as the method argument (in parentheses).

PS51> [System.Environment]::GetEnvironmentVariables('User')
PS51> [System.Environment]::GetEnvironmentVariables('Machine')
PS51> [System.Environment]::GetEnvironmentVariables('Process')

# The same as Process
PS51> [System.Environment]::GetEnvironmentVariables()
Listing environment variables with GetEnvironmentVariable in each scope

Getting Single Environment Variables with [System.Environment]

If you need to find a specific environment variable you can do so two different ways.

  • GetEnvironmentVariables().<var name> - not recommended
  • GetEnvironmentVariable('<var name>','<scope>')

GetEnvironmentVariables()

Using the GetEnvironmentVariables() method, you use dot notation to reference the value. Enclose the [System.Environment] class and static method reference in parentheses followed by a dot then the name of the environment variable like below:

PS51> ([System.Environment]::GetEnvironmentVariables()).APPDATA
Note that when referencing environment variables this way, you must ensure you match capitalization! In the example above, try to reference the APPDATA variable using appdata. Use the GetEnvironmentVariable() instead.

GetEnvironmentVariable()

Rather than using the GetEnvironmentVariables() method, instead use GetEnvironmentVariable() to find single environment variables. It gets around the issue with capitalization and also allows you to specify the scope.

To use this method, specify the environment variable name and the scope you'd like to look for that variable in separated by comma.

PS51> [System.Environment]::GetEnvironmentVariable('ComputerName','User')
# Blank

PS51> [System.Environment]::GetEnvironmentVariable('ComputerName','Machine')
# Blank

PS51> [System.Environment]::GetEnvironmentVariable('ComputerName','Process')  WIN10-1903

# The same as Process
PS51> [System.Environment]::GetEnvironmentVariable('ComputerName')
WIN10-1903

Setting an Environment Variable with [System.Environment]

Use the SetEnvironmentVariable() method to set the value of an environment variable for the given scope, or create a new one if it does not already exist.

When setting variables in the process scope, you'll find that the process scope is volatile while changes to the user and machine scopes are permanent.

PS51> [System.Environment]::SetEnvironmentVariable('TestVariable','Alpha','User')

PS51> [System.Environment]::SetEnvironmentVariable('TestVariable','Alpha','Process')

PS51> [System.Environment]::SetEnvironmentVariable('TestVariable','Alpha','Machine')

 # The same as Process
PS51> [System.Environment]::SetEnvironmentVariable('TestVariable','Alpha')
Note: Calling the SetEnvironmentVariable method with a variable name or value of 32767 characters or more will cause an exception to be thrown.

Removing an Environment Variable with [System.Environment]

Use the SetEnvironmentVariable() method to remove an environment variable for the given scope by setting its value to an empty string.

PS51> [System.Environment]::SetEnvironmentVariable('TestVariable', '', 'User')

PS51> [System.Environment]::SetEnvironmentVariable('TestVariable', '', 'Process')

PS51> [System.Environment]::SetEnvironmentVariable('TestVariable', '', 'Machine')

# The same as process
PS51> [System.Environment]::SetEnvironmentVariable('TestVariable', '')

Useful PowerShell Environment Variables

Like many other Windows applications, PowerShell has some environment variables of it's own. Two useful environment variables to know about are PSExecutionPolicyPreference and PSModulePath.

PSExecutionPolicyPreference

The PSExecutionPolicyPreference environment variable stores the current PowerShell execution policy. It is created if a session-specific PowerShell execution policy is set by:

  • Running the Set-ExecutionPolicy cmdlet with a Scope parameter of Process
  • Running the powershell.exe executable to start a new session, using the ExecutionPolicy command line parameter to set a policy for the session.

PSModulePath

The PSModulePath environment variable contains the path that PowerShell searches for modules if you do not specify a full path. It is formed much like the standard PATH environment variable, with individual directory paths separated by a semicolon.

PS51> $env:PSModulePath
C:\Program Files\WindowsPowerShell\Modules;C:\WINDOWS\system32\WindowsPowerShell\v1.0\Modules
Quick tip: Split each folder to get a string array to process each path individually using $env:PSModulePath.split(';')

Summary

Environment variables are a useful method for getting information about a running system, or storing information across sessions and reboots. Whether you're just reading the default Windows operating system environment variables and creating your own, you now can manage them using a variety of ways with PowerShell!

Further Reading